BOWLING GREEN AT MICHIGAN STATE
Kickoff: Noon Saturday, Spartan Stadium, East Lansing
Line: Michigan State by 17
View from the other side
John Wagner, Bowling Green beat writer for the Toledo Blade, breaks down the Falcons for The Detroit News, answering five questions heading into the season opener against Michigan State on Saturday. You can follow his work on Twitter @jwagnerblade.
1. Can Bowling Green maintain the momentum it built by winning its final three games in 2016?
That certainly is the hope amongst Falcons fans. Many people want to trash BG for last year’s 1-8 start — and Mike Jinks, who was in his first year as head coach, understood and accepted that. But credit also must go to Jinks, his staff, and last year's seniors for not throwing in the towel and instead winning those last three games. In the interest of full disclosure, the wins came against teams that finished 10-26, including two teams (Akron and Kent State) who were using position players at quarterback. But it gives BG fans hope that Jinks was able to make the best of a bad start — and that the players certainly responded to he and his staff.
2. How much better can James Morgan be now that he’s the starting QB to begin the season?
James Morgan is an extremely talented athlete who can make any pass you might have a quarterback throw. But he was a freshman last year, so there were times he would make ill-advised throws and expect a completion based on his arm strength. It didn’t happen, as 15 interceptions will attest. But the Falcons are more hopeful that he can take steps in play-calling, especially getting BG out of bad calls and into good ones.
One of the most frustrating stats from last season was the team’s 30.7 percent conversion rate on third downs. And the Falcons have a short-yardage tank in Donovan Wilson, who is 225 pounds! While lowering the interceptions and lifting the touchdowns would be nice, showing a better grasp of the offense will be critical for Morgan as a sophomore.
3. Can the defense, that got lit up early last season, build off the success it had late last year?
So far, it has. The problems last season were well-documented, including a 77-point lambasting at Ohio State that was repeated three weeks later at Memphis. You give up 77 to the Buckeyes? Not good, but it happens. But turning around and giving up 77 to Memphis — a bowl team that went 8-5 last year, but not Ohio State — is a wakeup call.
Both Jinks and defensive coordinator Perry Eliano have gone to great lengths to remake the defense, trying to play upon individual players’ strengths while covering up weaknesses. It did work late last season, as BG became a middle-of-the-pack MAC defense. But it has been more impressive this spring and in pre-season drills, when a young defense held its own against a more experienced offense. Losing All-MAC safety Jamari Bozeman hurts, to be sure. But this group seems deeper and more comfortable than last season.
4. The running game picked up late last year. Will the Falcons continue to focus on the ground attack?
That is the expectation, although you can expect BG will sling it around a fair amount. Morgan did throw for 16 TDs last season, and he has some very potent weapons in speedy Scotty Miller, an All-MAC receiver, and Datrin Guyton, a junior college transfer who began his career at Oregon State, among others.
But the running attack plays to the strengths of a veteran offensive line led by senior center Tim McAuliffe. BG has a “thunder and lightning” backfield with seniors Josh Cleveland, who is listed at 5-8 and can outrun anyone, and Donovan Wilson, who is listed at 225 and can run through anyone. There also is quality depth at that position in sophomore Matt Domer, who missed last season with an ACL injury, and true freshman Andrew Clair.
5. Does Mike Jinks get the Falcons back to a bowl game and contending in the MAC East?
That’s a tougher question to answer than it seems. Working against that goal is a very tough non-conference schedule that includes two road games against Big Ten teams, the Spartans and Northwestern, as well as a road game at Middle Tennessee, one of the best teams in Conference USA. BG could be improved over last season and still easily be 1-3 after the non-conference ends.
As for the Mid-American Conference portion of the schedule, the Falcons were really only blown out once (at Northern Illinois) and played close contests against bowl teams Eastern Michigan, Ohio, Toledo and Miami. It’s not out of the question for the Falcons to turn things around and earn wins against teams that beat them a year ago. But BG is not going to be a runaway favorite in those contests, either.
So, to answer your question: Because it only takes six wins to earn a bowl bid, I could see the Falcons winning five MAC games to become bowl-eligible. And yes, I could see victories over Ohio and/or Miami lifting BG into the mix for its fourth appearance in the MAC championship in five seasons. I will not guarantee that will happen, but it certainly can.
Players to watch
James Morgan, QB: After taking over as the starter midway through 2016, Morgan became the first freshman in school history to throw for more than 250 yards in three straight games. He finished with 2,082 yards and 16 touchdowns in seven starts, highlighted by a 335-yard, five-touchdown performance in a loss to Toledo.
Scott Miller, WR: The junior is the Falcons’ leading returning receiver after catching 74 passes for 968 yards and 10 touchdowns and earning All-MAC honors. He had four 100-yard receiving games in 2016, highlighted by 178 yards against Miami and 161 in a win over North Dakota.
Joseph Davidson, P: The senior was a first-team All-MAC performer last season and enters 2016 as a semifinalist for the Ray Guy Award, given to the nation’s top punter. He averaged 45.8 yards a punt last season led the nation with nine punts of 60 yards or more, including 19 of 50 yards or more.
Facts and figures
Opening success: Michigan State enters its matchup with Bowling Green having won 18 straight home-openers, dating back to 1999 when it beat Oregon at home. It’s tied for the fifth-longest active streak in the country with Arizona State. Florida is first with 27 followed by Wisconsin and Oklahoma State (21) and Illinois (19). Mark Dantonio is 10-0 in home openers, his only season-opening loss coming in 2008 at California.
Brief history: This is the third meeting between Michigan State and Bowling Green. The Spartans won, 10-7, in 1981 and again in 2007 by a score of 28-17. Michigan State is 39-6 against teams from the Mid-American Conference. Dantonio is 11-1 in games against the MAC.
No cupcake: Bowling Green had played in four straight bowl games before last season and has three wins over Big Ten teams in the last three years, knocking off Indiana in 2014 before beating Maryland and Purdue in 2015.